According to the National Association for the Specialty Food Trade (NASFT)‘s 2004 State of the Specialty Food Industry Report, America’s taste preferences have expanded. Americans buy more ethnic and international foods than ever before, and “ethnic” food has definitely expanded beyond Mexican and Italian. Growing numbers of non-Western-European immigrants have brought diverse flavors like Korean kim-chi, Jamaican jerk dishes, Japanese sushi, Congolese kuku paka, and Middle Eastern baba ghannouj. NASFT also reports that seven out of ten shoppers aged 25 through 39 purchase ethnic foods at least monthly. This number will surely continue to rise as more people immigrate to the United States and the American economy and culture continues to encourage inquisitiveness and exploration. In the past, Americans have not strayed far from their traditional diets, so these statistics are truly remarkable and show how much the United States has changed since the early 20th century.
So What Did People Eat Back Then?
Early twentieth century fare was much more ethnocentric than the modern American person’s diet of diverse flavors, colors, and textures. Around 80% of Americans lived on farms or in rural areas, so their diets were primarily seasonal, local, and strongly depended on their cultural heritage. According to The Food Timeline, “During the early decades of the 20th century, Americans foods reflected the great diversity of people living in our country. What people ate depended primarily upon who they were (ethnic heritage, religious traditions), where they lived (regional food preferences: New Orleans Creole, New England founding father?) and how much money they had (wealthy railroad tycoon? immigrant street peddler?).” So, while diverse flavors were available in the early 1900′s, people simply stuck to what they knew.
So Why The Jump from Ethnocentric Eating to Exploratory Eating?
This rise in culinary exploration could be primarily due to the development of the American economy over the last hundred years. As America became less agriculturally based and more industrially based, people moved from the countryside into big cities to find work. The larger the cities grew, the more diverse urban populations became. While Americans had previously only interacted with their few country neighbors, Americans now found themselves interacting with hundreds or thousands of neighbors, often with varying ethnic and cultural histories. Immigrants from other countries would frequently open restaurants serving their homeland’s fare, which is often how international foods are introduced to Americans. However, many people still did not have the money to eat at restaurants, so the impact of the introduction of ethnic foods was minimal at the time.
During the second half of the 20th century, Americans began to have an increasing amount of disposable income, and much of this was spent on entertainment and eating out, leading ultimately to exploration in dining experience. Additionally, the recent influx of Generation Y kids with disposable income has led to an explosion in consumer “need” to find and follow the latest trends. These trends are often related to “foodie” experiences, and range from health food trends (like vegan and low carb diets) to ethnic food trends (Indian food, sushi, pho, and Hibachi grills).
So Why Do You Care?
Americans are more likely to try new things than ever before, and other cultures offer new things. If you primarily deal in jeans, try to offer a style that has an international cut. If your business primarily sells traditional burgers and fries, you might incorporate curry fries in your menu.